Unlike the other courses being taught at the International Summer Academy of Fine Arts, the name of Ei Arakawa and Sarah Chow’s three-week course, “The magic meets the conceptual” (co-taught by Noële Ody), offers little explanation. As many times as I meditated on those five words—magic meeting the conceptual—I couldn’t figure it out. As many times as I wandered past their classroom, I saw nothing, no object or book, that could offer an answer. The floor, as are most of the stools, is smattered with paint among other detritus. Tables are laden with mugs and scraps of paper, but nothing explanatory. My interest piqued: how to marry art and magic? What could they possibly be doing, and talking about, and working on for three whole weeks? When I heard that the class would be offering a tarot workshop on Tuesday morning, I jumped at the chance to sit-in and observe.
We sat on pillows arranged in a crescent shape. Some people drank tea, others found a fresh page in their notebooks. The mood was generally calm, yet excited. (I must mention that we were sat in what I now know to be called the Octagon Magic Pavillion, a structure the walls of which are formed of draping natural material. A carpeted tent of sorts, separating us and our workshop from the rest of the school.) We faced Chow and Arakawa who had arranged twenty-two cards from their Rider-Waite deck in a similar sweeping crescent shape. I don’t know what I expected, but Chow, who started by clarifying her position as an artist, not a tarot practitioner, flew into the introduction with academic pragmatism. “There are seventy-eight cards. Twenty-two in the major arcana. The rest are here.” she explained, gesturing towards four stacks of palm-sized cards that laid between the ends of the arch. The Major Arcana (“Arcana” meaning secrets, mystery or knowledge) starts at zero. “Zero is The Fool, tarot theorists consider this to be the wild card. Kind of like The Joker in a normal deck.” The Fool is dressed extravagantly, he flicks his hair back and holds a flower in his left hand. Above him, a white sun blazes. At his heels, an excited dog leaps, as if trying to warn him of the cliff edge from which he is preparing to jump. “The Fool talks about instincts. His name, ‘The Fool’ comes across as judgemental, but when I read this card, it’s saying ‘Go for it!’, ‘Jump off the cliff!’” At first glance, I would read The Fool as exactly that—a fool. But Chow explained that the cards are neither inherently negative nor positive, they rely on context. They are as individual as the people reading them, and are to be interpreted as such.
“As above so below. As within, so without.” said Chow of The Magician, whose right hand is raised to heaven, left hand dropped to earth, and above whom an infinity symbol floats, like a halo. He is, to Chow, The Fool who jumped from the cliff. He has found his powers, the four elements, which we see laid out on the table before him. Much like how, in Chow’s opinion, all magic works as a series of correspondences, this card represents the correspondence between the inner and the outer. “But isn’t he also trying to balance the unbalancable?” queried Nijk, a twenty-eight year old Vienna-based artist and course participant. The group was intrigued by this alternate reading, and discussed it further.
In an individual reading some days ago, Nijk pulled The Lovers, a card representing the third astrological house, Gemini. The couple joining hands in the illustration were Adam and Eve—unmistakably, though Gemini has also been historically represented by Castor and Pollux. Though she was hoping for answers as to her experience at the Summer Academy, the card (which needn’t be read romantically) offered her a greater understanding of certain events in her life. “I’m used to working alone, so [working so closely with others] took a lot of energy from me in the beginning. I had to shift my energy field, somehow…It feels very natural, seeing everyone work together today.” she explained. One could gauge the closeness of the students—a natural discourse flowed, without the need to interrupt or raise hands. The personal relationship one can have with the cards was evident, it was during this time that it became clearer to me, just how much a magical and artistic practice can share.
1 — So, how does the magic meet the conceptual?
Arakawa: Magic is so misunderstood, and in art, we have so much freedom to conceptualise our work. I thought we could do an experiment using magic more freely within our practice. The conceptual helps us expand our meanings and understandings. At times, magic can be confined to marginalised systems of study. Because we are all artists here, we wanted to take this magic knowledge more seriously, and then combine this with our conceptual way of working within art.
Chow: While we’ve been here, we deal with magic conceptually, but we also deal with art very magically. It’s kind of this confusion of terms. Where does one begin, where does the other ends; where do they meet, where do they intertwine. We want to emphasise how one’s practice as an artist is so much about who you are, in yourself, in your values, and then how that also relates to magic. For me, they’re the same thing. An intuitive practice and an art practice.
2 — Why magic?
Chow: That was not my choice (laughs). Magic isn’t an explicit part of my personal practice because I’m not that comfortable being represented that way. As a woman, and a Woman of Colour, it’s so stereotypical: “Oh! The mystical Woman of Colour who has the keys to secret knowledge!”. It’s something I resisted, actually.
Arakawa: Despite this, [Sarah] has so much knowledge, so we wanted to invent a means of expressing that knowledge more conceptually and freely without risking falling into clichés. And for me, being based in collaborative practices, the possibility for a new mode of work is always very interesting. Also, coming from a performance background, I’m interested in ephemerality, immateriality—things that aren’t obvious, not materialistic. So it felt like a natural field to enter into. So much of performance is ritualistic, so it made sense.
3 —And where we just were—how do I describe it…I think someone said “Octagon Magic Pavillion”? What is the purpose of the space where we had the tarot workshop? What has it come to mean as a safe space?
Chow: When Ei approached me about this collaboration, he described it as being in a “thousand-year-old castle in Western Europe”. I thought it sounded really freaky! He said,“Yeah, it was really chaotic when I taught here last year.” I thought it sounded horrible! (laughs).
I was apprehensive, so we had a conversation about cordoning off a space that could be “clean”. This octagon shape came up, because it’s a magical shape. I like the word “pavillion” as it relates to Chinese architecture, like shrines. Anyway, in Ei’s head, it’s “the magic lounge”. It’s a very fluid space. It’s a space where we meet for two hours each morning for lectures and workshops. The ‘shoes-off’ rule was really about creating this safe space, where people could come and rest, because I knew they would feel overwhelmed by their studio practice. People take naps in there!
Arakawa: The Octagon Magic Pavillion allows us to be much more intimate. It was a different story last year. I think this class needed some kind of rendered space, to share and exchange these personal beliefs.
Chow: There’s just so much happening around us, that inside of the Pavillion, if you can’t see it, it feels like it’s not happening to you. It stays on the outside.
Arakawa: Art can come to generally mean something for the public, something to show people. But there’s another kind of art, and the question of audience. Sometimes art doesn’t need an audience, and art can exist as it is. Art can be for yourself, so we’re questioning who this art, or who this magic is for.
4 — What can we expect to see [at the open day] on Friday? How will the non-materialistic nature of your course will manifest physically. How will all this discussion of person and practice become something tangible?
Arakawa: I think we’ll see some more introverted work.
Chow: Really? I don’t think that.
Arakawa: Is that a negative thing?
Chow: No, I’m an introvert, it’s not negative—
Arakawa: Internal, maybe.
Chow: Like bellygazing?
Chow: Ginevra Landini’s work, for instance, is definitely not bellygazing. She’s going to project a video onto this body-form, the form of an absence of a body. The video is snapshots of her trip down a river in Peru—it’s not introverted.
Fajemisin: So there’ll be sculpture?
Arakawa: It’s not the goal of the course, to show work. Rather its the process of the class. I guess it’s not an exhibition, it’s an “open studio”…I don’t know. People might not “get it”. But I hope people understand that we went on a three-week journey.
Chow: Each of which was so individual. From the beginning we places real emphasis on how this is a very individual journey. Everyone has a different approach. There’ll be no way to talk about it using an umbrella term. Some people are working materially, others not. It’s just important that they get something out of the class. It’s only three weeks, we’ve been looking at how this time can be productive. In general we’ll see performances, sculpture…
Fajemisin:…I saw some blocks of wax on one student’s desk.
Chow: Oh yeah! Juliana [Lindenhofer] is carving chimeras!
5 — How do you consolidate the non-Western bases of your practices with the Western contemporary art circles within which you work? Sarah, Ei; being based in New York City, do you transmute your work so it can be understood by a the Western audience? Going back to what Sarah said about her position as a Woman of Colour in this context leading to exoticism, do you then consider your work to be a form of transcultural exchange?
Chow: I don’t know how Ei felt about this, but for me, I was very conflicted about coming here to teach “magic”. I did study modern Western astrology and tarot, and although the history of tarot is very controversial in terms of its origins, Western astrology is very Western. I’m Chinese-American, so questions of why I didn’t study other forms of astrology and what brought me to those western modalities (even though I’m American) have been on my mind. Then coming to Western-Europe to teach a non-centrally located belief system has also been a big question for me.
When Ei and I were talking about this class, I was really resistant to structuring it around Western astrological tradition or tarot specifically, and to approach the concept of magic in our title more broadly. So that’s also what I meant when I said we need to “demystify the tools”, because it’s not that modern Western astrology holds any keys, or the key to any secrets of anything—the keys to the secrets are within you, and you can use any tools, anything from that…plant behind you on the windowsill to your phone, which is kind of a magical tool too! It can be very ritualistic.
During our first week here, we did this elixir workshop, and we went into the woods, and I just told the students that they could collect their materials there, and that we are able to have a direct relationship with this land because we are here. We’re not Austrian, so we can’t be Austrian in terms of our magic, but wherever we are in the world, there are possibilities to manifest anything. The question of access also causes conflict for me because, no matter where you are, you can have access to tools which we can use for self-empowerment, but it doesn’t mean that everyone is born with equal access.
Arakawa: As a US-educated artist coming from Japan is having to create my own discourse. But it’s impossible to separate Japanese (performance) art history from Western contemporary art, or Western modern art. They’re not separate entities. There’s no pure “East” or “West” anymore. In our presentation of Western magic, we’re trying to be careful as to considering who “owns”, or who “authors” the subject. Perhaps that’s why it’s important to have a conceptual understanding of magic.
Chow: The history of magic is very intertwined. There are so many paths of infection across different cultures. It’s an open ended question too, because I am American, and that is very Western. But, with my identity, I always feel as if there’s a big question mark there. I’m Chinese-American, but actually my parents are from Hong Kong, which has a complicated political relationship with China, and so on. And then Ei is Japanese, but he’s “becoming” American in a few months…
Arakawa: Being Asian, there’s a different experience when it comes to thinking about the self.
Chow: About “self”, and “self” in relation to the world, definitely.
Arakawa: The individualism that the Western art world is based is different to the way we relate to self, family, collective. So that undertone informs our work.
Chow: There’s a big tradition of collecting rocks in China—there’s a lot of money in rocks. I relate to that a lot because, when I was talking about having access to tools everywhere, I really do mean just picking up a rock. I can only talk about China being Chinese, but there, there’s a long history of the relationship between the micro- and macrocosm. That also influences my interest in astrology and tarot, and things like that.
6 — What’s next?
Arakawa: We want to do [this workshop] again, in a different location. It’s almost like “pedagogy as performance”.
Fajemisin: Where do you plan on going?
Chow: (to Arakawa) Are you not mentioning China for a reason?
Arakawa: Well, it’s just a talk, right?
Fajemisin: So, China’s on the horizon, potentially?
Arakawa: We’ll show an older work in Shanghai, this November. It’s something we collaborated on last year. Performance People is a selection of fifteen historical art performances from different places. Yoko Ono, Andrea Fraser, Stuart Sherman. We selected artwork, like Seedbed (1972) by Vito Acconci, looked at the date of the premieres of these performances—
Chow: Like, the “birth times” of the performances.
Arakawa: And then applied astrology to this. This way, you can see the persona, or character of the performance art. Sarah interpreted the astrological charts, and—
Chow: I basically turned it into a narrative, of their personalities. And wrote fifteen essays.
Fajemisin: So it’s an astrological personification of the artworks.
Chow: Complete with reincarnation motifs!
Arakawa: We will show this in China, the first time we’ll show it in an Eastern context. We’re excited to see how people will be interested in this. It’s a way of translating the context of the history of performance art out of the classical art historical canon. Rather concentrating the moment in which performance was born.
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